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US shuttle symbolizes how space program went awry. The shuttle disaster and the grounding of key US unmanned rockets have forced Americans to take a clear-eyed look at what they want to do in space . . . and why. In a series starting today, the Monitor's natural-science editor explains how the US space program got itself into such a mess and describes the hard choices Americans face.

Here at Cape Canaveral, you'd never know that America's space fleet is grounded. Visitors swarm over the public area, which tour guides call ``Spaceport USA.'' Within the Kennedy Space Center's restricted zone, ground crews scramble over the three remaining space shuttles as though preparing them for missions.

Launch director Gene Thomas says that ``morale is back'' after January's Challenger tragedy. And standing beneath the orbiter Columbia, watching a technician lovingly replace a heat-shielding tile, it's hard to remember that this magnificent spacecraft has proved to be something of a technological turkey -- a compromise that has fully pleased none of its users.

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The Columbia and its sister ships, in fact, symbolize the crisis the United States space program faces: It lacks both clearly defined goals and the necessary national consensus to ensure their achievement.

To adapt a clich'e, the country put all of its space eggs in one basket . . . and then counted more potential chickens than the limited supply of eggs could possibly hatch.

The reusable shuttle was designed for a multiplicity of purposes. It was to give relatively cheap access to low-Earth orbit. It was to launch most military satellites, which governed the size of the cargo bay.

Yet it was also to carry commercial satellites into space in a cost-competitive way. It was to launch scientific satellites and interplanetary probes, to provide on-orbit facilities for scientific and industrial research. It was even to function as a mini-space station using the Europeansupplied Spacelab.

Today, experts generally agree that it is little wonder a machine optimized for no specific purpose costs so much to carry people and cargo into orbit. The tab is a highly cost-ineffective several thousand dollars a pound. This has become a major barrier to space development.

``If we can make plenty of transport available at low enough prices, we can promote space development,'' says space analyst Ray Williamson of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. But he and many other experts say that means cutting the shuttle's earth-to-orbit costs 10 to 100 times, if not more.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was never given enough money to develop this versatile spacecraft properly. NASA officials knew they needed nearly twice the $5 billion to $6 billion that the Nixon administration was willing to spend on the program. But the smaller amount was about all they could foresee squeezing out of $3.2 billion-a-year budgets -- the amount President Nixon approved for the entire agency under a level-budget policy. NASA shaped the shuttle design partly to accommodate that budget level.

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Ivan Beckey, director of advanced programs in NASA's Office of Space Flight, notes that this meant the shuttle project had to skimp on such things as developing alternative means of meeting technical needs, on testing, and on developmental research. This may have contributed indirectly to the Challenger disaster.

``In retrospect,'' he says, ``it might have been better to say, `No thank you, Mr. President. We can't do a proper job with the funds you are prepared to provide.' Within four years, pressure would have built up to do something significant in manned spaceflight and do it right.'' He adds, ``We try to sell programs at too low a cost. That's what's wrong with the shuttle today.''

The shuttle budget squeezed other NASA programs as costs rose through the 1970s. Space science suffered as proposals for major programs were rebuffed or deferred. NASA began to insist that all US satellites and deep-space craft be shuttle-launched to help justify shuttle costs. The Department of Defense balked and won the right to maintain a few unmanned launch vehicles of its own. But civilian rockets were to be phased out.

By the time of the Challenger disaster, American space scientists and commercial satellite operators depended totally on the shuttle as far as US launch facilities were concerned. Even the next generation of weather satellites was to be shifted to the shuttle. This is why the grounding of the shuttle fleet has precipitated a crisis that goes far beyond the question of shuttle safety.

Today, there is wide agreement that the US has been trying to do too much in space with too few resources. Space analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University reflects this consensus when he says: ``It was a mistake to say we were going to do everything with the shuttle. And it was a bad policy mistake to make that official national policy in 1980.''

In a recent major policy statement, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said: ``As a matter of highest priority in a reenergized national space program to which a realistic level of support is dedicated, we strongly urge that the nation move rapidly toward the acquisition of a balanced [manned and unmanned] fleet of launch vehicles that will provide assured access to space for all activities demanded by our national space program.''

Thus the US faces more than just a challenge with the shuttle. It faces the long-dodged issue of what it wants to do in space, how it wants to do it, and how much it is willing to pay. ``We seem to want leadership, but we don't want to pay for it,'' says Beckey. ``The Apollo program was well funded. What we're trying to do today is grossly underfunded.''

Here again experts agree on a basic point: The underlying need is for a set of clear goals. The NAS statement explains, ``Following Apollo, the nation failed to identify any clear goals for its space program, but, nevertheless, tried to attain a level of activity well above the limit set by the means . . . available.''

Recent recommendations by the presidential National Commission on Space provide a starting point for a national debate on space goals. And, as Americans reexamine their space program, they face two key questions, according to veteran space scientist Bruce Murray of the California Institute of Technology: ``What's next in space, and most important, what's in it for the United States?'' Other articles in the series include: June 3, Part 2: Why put people in space? June 4, Part 3: The scientists' lament June 5, Part 4: Factories on orbit June 6, Part 5: Military and the shuttle June 9, Part 6: Soviets take the long view June 10, Part 7: Competition from Europe and Asia June 11, Part 8: Space goals: deja vu? June 12, Part 9: An embattled NASA June 13, Part 10: The rocky road to consensus